MICHAEL WOLSEY: It’s heresy, I know … but do we really need fathers in maternity wards?
I was present for the birth of my third daughter but banned from the ward when the first two were born.
At the time of the first birth, the ban seemed perfectly normal to both me and my wife. Men, if they wished to be on the hospital premises at all, were confined to the waiting room.
Men were banned but smoking was not. A common meme (a word that didn’t exist back then) of cartoons and television comedy saw good news relayed to the expectant father who would produce a packet of cigars and hand them around to the other men in the room.
I wonder did that ever really happen? I don’t remember it, but I do recall a time when fathers-in-waiting were more likely to be found in the pub next door than in the hospital.
In The Snapper, Jimmy Rabbitte tells his pregnant daughter, Sharon, where he was when his many children were born. “When your mammy was havin’ Jimmy I was in work. An’ when she was havin’ you I was in me mother’s. When she had Leslie, I was inside, in town, in Conways (a pub near The Rotunda) … for Darren I was – I can’t remember. The twins, I was in the Hikers (his local).”
Jimmy’s aware that “nowadays the husbands are there with the women”. “That’s much better,” he says. But he is relieved when Sharon turns down his offer to be there for the birth of his grandchild.
By the time my second daughter was born, a few hospitals were allowing men to stay in the maternity ward, but the head nurse at The Coombe was having none of it. “You’ve caused enough trouble,” she laughed, with a glance at Dympna’s bump. “You’d only get in the way.”
In truth, like Jimmy Rabbitte, I was a bit relieved. And so, I think, was Dympna.
I’m not sure exactly when all this changed, but If you are older than 40, and were born in an Irish hospital, it is unlikely that your father was there at the time. Your grandfather was almost certainly not present for the birth of his children. Your great grandfather would have been more likely to witness the event, since home births were common in his day, although even in his own house he would probably have been excluded from the birthing room.
These memories have been brought to mind by the anger at pandemic rules which banned partners from maternity wards and the consternation over suggestions that some hospitals may re-impose the ban because of rising Covid figures.
I hope that doesn’t happen. Like Jimmy Rabbitte, I think the modern way is better. And I realise that the ban caused particular problems for women with complicated pregnancies.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a disproportionate fuss over possibly reverting to a rule which society once took for granted and under which millions of children were happily born in Ireland and many other places.
We have become a country with a high sense of entitlement and a short memory.
I hear people say they are ‘homeless’ because they have to live with their parents. Living with parents used to be normal for people at the start of married life, while they saved for a home of their own or waited for a place on the council list. The prospect of achieving a house by either route was, admittedly, greater than at present. But they knew it was something they had to wait for and did not consider themselves homeless because they were living with ma and da.
I hear university students complain about high rents or having to travel long distances, which means they miss out on the social side of college.
That wasn’t a problem when I left school in the late 1960s. But, there again, further education didn’t give most of us any problem at all, because it wasn’t an option. Numbers in third level have increased six-fold since 1965 and in 2019 Ireland became the EU member state with the highest proportion of school-leavers progressing to higher education.
That does not make high rents any easier to pay or missing out on student social life any more fun. But a little bit of perspective would do no harm.
We are lucky to live in a prosperous, liberal, democratic country that tries to look after its citizens. I don’t want to turn back the clock on health care, education or anything else, pretty much. But it would be nice to sometimes hear a bit of old-fashioned gratitude.